Monday, April 11, 2005


Jackie Regales

Now that it’s over, I try to think back and pick out what was the hardest part about living without health insurance for over a year. I had to tell all of our doctors that our “status” had “changed,” and ask them if it was okay for us to pay out-of-pocket. I had to watch my twin daughters, who were toddlers, carefully, trying to decide what was just a cold or a rash and what would merit a doctor’s visit. I remember having trouble sleeping when I was in the hospital for appendicitis, so worried about how much all this was costing us. I remember the sympathy and pity on the face of the surgeon who told us he would not charge us for the appendectomy, as he tried to ignore the moans of the woman sharing my room. She was on dialysis, waiting for a kidney transplant, black, homeless and on methadone. I wondered what his reaction would have been if it had been her on the operating table. Getting waves of bills after the surgery, trying to ask relatives for money, and considering putting it all on credit cards and carrying that load for years to come was very difficult.

The worst part was living in constant uncertainty. I was slightly frightened everyday that today would be the day one of us broke a leg, one of us came down with something serious, the day that my child or my partner had an accident that would snap the tightrope we were walking on. We were like thousands of families, just barely making it from paycheck to paycheck, lucky to have good health and the chance of things being better once my partner got a full-time job.

But then, maybe the worst part was the sense of failure that I felt. One of a mother’s most basic duties is to keep her children safe, but I had no safety net for my daughters. If an emergency had come up, I would have had to scramble to protect them, to heal them and make them healthy again. I failed at being middle-class, at being the kind of person I was supposed to grow up to be. My parents were solid middle-class types, each in steady professions, neither ever unemployed once. They were both working for the same employers that had hired them thirty years before. I had grown up in a stable home, even though my mother was a single parent. I had a college degree—in fact, two of them, and so did my husband. We were not supposed to be this poor, and we were not supposed to be living in this kind of limbo. We were supposed to be working towards upward mobility, moving into the suburbs, giving our children better than what we had, sending them to good school and propelling them towards college. Instead, we were borrowing money from our parents, I was waiting tables and teaching at night, and we were both hoping desperately that some time soon, our luck would change.

My husband and I were under a lot of strain, and we often took it out on each other, although we tried not to do it in front of our girls. We lived with my mother-in-law for a time, asked our parents for money, accumulated credit card debt, and hoped for the best. We tried to buckle down and ride out the storm as best we could, and eventually, my husband got a job, and we got insurance.

The most important thing I learned was just how lucky we really are. I read once that Gloria Steinem said that every woman in America was one man away from welfare, and now I see the cold reality behind the sentence. Without our parents, we would have been on public assistance. Without our education, we would not have had the optimism to think that someday our situation would improve. If we had not grown up middle-class, we would not have been able to become middle-class ourselves. This sounds blatantly obvious, and I cringe even as I write it, to see how naïve and how sheltered I was. I never thought of myself that way, because I did grow up with a single mother, and I was the kid in school who had generic sneakers, who lived in a smaller house in a poorer neighborhood. Most of my friends had always had more money than me, so I lost sight of how truly lucky and privileged I was. The experience of my husband being unemployed changed the way I think about class, about parenthood, and about our society.

When I hear official rhetoric about a family of four in America, I know they are talking about me. My family makes $37,000 a year, or at least we did last year, and hope to this year, and that is coincidentally the median income for the average family of four in America. That number is only enough for us because we have significant family support, good educations and excellent credit. How do people survive who don’t have those assets? My friends and I ask that of each other, those of us who hover around that line and are still doing okay.

My family now pays $480 a month for HMO health care and I feel lucky to have it, because at least now we would be safe from catastrophes. The restaurant I used to work for offered me the chance to opt in to their excellent health care, for the bargain price of $900 per month for my family. These are not statistics for me. These are the concrete facts that make up my reality. The importance of affordable health care is not a platform issue, a piece of campaign rhetoric, or a concept that has disappeared now that the election is over.

When I sit in the doctor’s office, I look at the faces around me and wonder, how much is this costing each of us? Who here worried and stayed up at night, anxious about how to pay for today? How many of us have never known any different? How many of us simply woke up, felt a tickle in our throat or an ache in our joints and thought, “Hmmm, I’ll make an appointment later today, and get this taken care of?” What price do our children pay when they go without dentist visits, eye exams, pediatrician visits? How much longer will we let this go on, in what is supposed to be the greatest country in the world?

Someday, I hope that my family will have better, more affordable health care than we have. Someday, I hope we all will.

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